Idiotic interviews, music industry interference and consoling tearful Japanese fans? The new Radiohead video, 'Meeting People Is Easy' has 'em all.
“MEETING PEOPLE Is Easy”, a film by Grant Gee, charts the demented pressures and shattering schedule that accompanied Radiohead in 1997. It follows them across America, the UK, Europe, the Far East and Australia, as they tour, play on TV shows, collect awards, shoot videos, do interviews and slowly go mad in jet aircraft all over the world.
Following much the same enigmatic aesthetic as Radiohead themselves, “Meeting People...” is a cool, beguiling feast for the eyes and ears, but after an hour and a half you’ll be none the wiser as to the means and motives behind their work. If anything, the band actually use the usually revealing documentary medium to bury themselves under an avalanche of conflicting chaos and wary suggestion. It’s a demanding, challenging 94 minutes.
1 min: The film begins at a breakneck pace with scenes from some of the band’s best performances from last year, intercut with a hilarious eavesdrop on Jonny and Colin trying to record a radio-plug (something you soon discover they have to do an awful lot), and the bizarre backstage loosening-up of Thom. One of the most instantly memorable scenes happens around here: that incredible Glastonbury performance.
Thom recalls: “Everything that’s happened after Glastonbury has been a let-down. The feeling when I shouted at the lighting engineer to turn the lights on the crowd so I could see at least one person, cos we couldn’t see anything. There were 40,000 people up the hill, holding lighters and fires burning, and tents pitched, and I don’t think I’ve ever felt like that in my entire life. It wasn’t a human feeling, it was something else entirely.”
5 mins: The real highlights here are the live performances. You rarely see an entire song (only an incredible opening “Lucky” five minutes in) and never see anything resembling yer average performance video. Songs are given weird directorial spins, cut into mid-way, arranged in hectic order, never allowed to finish. Throughout the video, themes emerge and disappear to be picked up again later. The effect is cumulative rather than didactic. You’re in for the whole ride.
15 mins: Another major concern of the film is the pressure the band feel under when trying to reconcile their music with the positions they’re forced into. The public’s hunger for every available bit of information and the constant crush of cameras and microphones is evoked with claustrophobic close-ups. Twenty minutes in, a run of idiotic questions are spliced together (“Are you Britpop?”) over a scrolling text of myriad answer cuttings.
Alongside footage from rehearsals for David Letterman’s TV show, Thom’s cracking up: “If they’re gonna call it a concept album, if they’re gonna f*** us on the technology angle, then let them. It’s f***ing noise anyway. We’ve done our job. We add to the noise, that’s all.”
If some of the whingier moments drag a little, it’s always buoyed up by performance. A particularly painful shot of Colin desperately attempting to stay awake through his hundredth interview of the day runs into amazing Japanese concert footage, filmed facing the crowd through a fisheye above the first row. Perhaps the most revealing live shots are during two takes of “Creep”: one from that unforgettable Glastonbury performance, when Thom holds the mic out to the crowd with a look of resignation and amusement, the other where the camera starts in the midst of the crowd, then moves back steadily until it’s actually outside the hall looking long-distance and with an eerie detachment at the back of heads and a dim racket.
30 mins: Onstage, in rehearsal and recording, Radiohead are an absorbing, intriguing spectacle. The video falters when forced to confront the band offstage, or reflect their fractured take on the mad rush surrounding them.
In Berlin, a limp collage of meaningless images (vagueness mistaken for profundity again) sells the city and the band’s performance there short. Scott Walker accompanies a particularly pointless bit of noodling: slo-mo film of Thom coming down an escalator intercut with a particularly Hendrixian bit of gippery from Jonny, half-filtered over shots of the Empire State Building with a fly crawling on the lens. It’s at times like this that “Missing People...” comes closest to resembling nothing more than an extended filmic indulgence, and it’s here that you question how much the film was under the band’s direct control.
45 mins: Halfway through and you’re just getting used to the constantly shifting rhythms of the film, when there’s a sudden moment of reverie. The film often does this – shifts from the chaos of the tour into quiet little unguarded moments where the band get as close as they can to revealing themselves.
In the back of a cab to an aftershow party Thom muses: “The freakiest thing about any of this is the idea that you would be one of those important bands to somebody. I remember listening to ‘Strangeways’ in the bedroom of a girl in Oxford when I was young, and ‘Dead Letter Office’. There’s this weird way music gets imprinted on your heart. That’s why playing live, meeting people and seeing people that age at the gigs is such a big deal, cos I remember it being a big deal for me. Everything else is bullshit. That connection is the only reason to keep going. The idea that you form the most crucial part of someone’s life, especially in the nasty teenage bit, where everything goes completely wrong.”
There’s another such moment soon after, when, after some chucklesome attempts to record a few award acceptance video speeches (“That was shit, God, I hate doing these f***ing things,” spits Thom), the band find themselves backstage in Japan, discussing where it all went wrong.
Thom: “I’m really worried that we’ve been running too long on bravado and believing we’re as wonderful as everyone tells us we are. Jonny, last year we were the most hyped band; Number One in all the polls, and it’s bollocks.”
Jonny: “I don’t see why that should change what we do.”
Thom: “Of course it does, it changes everything, your mental state, it’s just a complete headf***. We’re so full of it. We agree to do things and then halfway through doing them we’re just wrecks.”
Jonny: “Isn’t it really that the excitement level’s gone a bit?”
Thom: “Yeah, of course. I just feel we should get out while the going’s good. If you’re bored of the songs, you’re bored of the songs, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
60 mins: It’s these moments, uncut and unmediated, that form the most fascinating sections of “Missing People...”. Instances of such transcendent absurdity, the frowns crack to smiles, or times when the band is caught simply doing what they do best – playing together.
We see a long cut from a band rehearsal. They sound incredible. Next, the fraught recording of a new song is painstakingly and fascinatingly detailed. The band meet their Eton-Hogg-style boss and mug gamefully with gold discs. That “No Surprises” video is analysed by two chirpy Sky News afternoon-presenters (one of whom concludes “it’s music to slit your wrists to, the most miserable sound I’ve ever heard”, in-between mouthfuls of birthday cake). And Colin charmingly consoles two tearful Japanese fans at the airport. All these moments are to treasure.
75 mins: The by-line for the film is “a film by Grant Gee mainly about Radiohead”. What you realize as you approach the end is that undeniably arresting as Gee’s images and editing are, the most interesting moments here are the straight-shot glimpses into Radiohead’s inner workings, the moments, oddly, that are simply direct documentary.
90 mins: As you leave the band exhausted, towelling off, and digging into their rider after the last show of the world tour, the abiding message the video hopes to promulgate is an entirely conventional, albeit honourable, one.
The attempt is to try and show a band under siege, from the press, from their minders, from the business of being in a band, a band who just want to play for the people. Thing is, this video can only be seen as part of the obfuscation process the band seem to resent, and, as a plea for understanding and solitude, the whole thing can’t help but come across as a film perpetuating precisely that intrigue and overthink it seeks to destroy. But, if Radiohead’s mission is to add to the confusion of life, then “Meeting People Is Easy” goes even further – it infinitely adds to the confusion surrounding the band themselves. See it and reel.
‘Meeting People Is Easy’ is out on November 30 on Parlophone Video